Enter the Devil's Playground at Whitechapel

Story by Jack Foley

Nan Goldin is described by the Whitechapel Art Gallery as 'the impassioned historian of love in an age of fluid sexuality, glamour, beauty, violence and death'. Recognised as one of the world's most compelling photographers, her work has had a lasting impact on film, design and fashion and the fine arts.

Her exhibition, curiously entitled Devil's Playground, brings together the definitive collection of her work and is sure to appeal to any fans of offbeat, controversial or downright thought-provoking photography.

The photographer is probably better known for her photographs of people living marginal lifestyles, taken in cosmopolitan centres such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo and Paris.

She works directly from personal experience, capturing moments that tell stories of friendship, desire and their aftermath. Hence, her work traverses the spectrum of human relations from love to isolation, betrayal, loss and self-revelation.

Emotionally charged, and shot in intensely saturated hues, these images provide a slice of contemporary history, recounted through the lives of those close to her and characterised by an unposed and private take on her subjects.

The 'Boston Years' is a sequence of early photographs, taken between 1969 and 1974, which first brought her to prominence. The first black and white snapshots capture Goldin and her friends in glamorous poses and heavy make-up, reinventing themselves as icons of sexual fantasy. In the early 70s Goldin lived with two drag queens, turning her camera to their public, on-stage personas as well as more intimate moments in their domestic surroundings.

Goldin's standing was firmly established, however, with 'The Ballad of Sexual Dependency' a series made between 1978-88. A book as well as a slide installation, constantly re-edited for 15 years, it comprises over 700 images and is best described by the gallery's website as a 'fiercely moving journey through a whole range of human relations' set to a soundtrack that includes blues, reggae, rock and opera. It turned Goldin into a downtown star, a cult figure and finally a widely respected artist of international repute.

The second half of the 80s signalled a bleaker and more sombre development in Goldin's practice. The advent of AIDS, the death of numerous friends, the violent breakdown of a long-term relationship and her journey through drug addiction are all documented in some of Goldin's most poignant images. These include sequences dedicated to the memory of friends: Greer Lankton ('Greer'), Cookie Mueller ('The Cookie Mueller Portfolio' 1976-90), 'Gotscho + Gilles', Paris, 1992-93, 'Alf Bold Grid' and 'The Positive Grid'.

The second part of Devil's Playground consists entirely of work produced in recent years, such as interiors, skies, cityscapes and landscapes (Elements). They are empty of people and possess an abstract quality.

By contrast, the 'Relics and Saints' sequence - votive elements photographed in churches and grottoes - is almost Baroque in feel. Religious iconography is keenly felt in some of these more recent images, evoked in photographs of women and their children.

The human figure has, however, remained at the core of Goldin's photography, and it is captured with grit, exuberance, sensuality, tenderness and pathos. Collectively, her works provide a profoundly humanistic take on sexuality and capture the spirit of our times.

Whitechapel Art Gallery, 80-82 Whitechapel High Street, London, E1 7QX. Admission £4.50 (£3.50 concs. Free to Whitechapel Members on Tuesdays). Recorded information 020 7522 7878; Other enquiries 020 7522 7888